Since September 11, 2001, American military children have grown up drastically differently due to unprecedented levels of deployment and increased reliance on Reserve and National Guard members. Every day, many of the men and women of the armed forces return to their families and their civilian lives. However, not everyone has that chance, and some families left behind are forever impacted. Snowball Express remembers those fallen heroes and honors the supreme sacrifice their families have made for our country and for every American citizen’s freedom, serving the children who will never be reunited with their beloved mom or dad.
Since 2005, Snowball Express’ mission has been simple, yet profoundly clear. The event offers hope and new happy memories to children of fallen military heroes who have died while on active duty. Now in its eleventh year, the Snowball Express event brings children together from all over the U.S. to the Dallas/Fort Worth area for an all-expenses paid, five-day, life-changing experience of holiday fun in December. Designed for children ages 5 to 18, the series of activities provide festive fun in a nurturing environment, allowing an opportunity for attendees to connect with others and share their feelings about losing something so precious: a family member. Nearly 1,500 people attend with new and reoccurring families experiencing the activities, fellowship and camaraderie.
Al Brewster, a former board member of the Snowball Express and a retired U.S. Marine Corp veteran, explains, “Snowball Express is very close to my heart. The objective of this organization is to express to these families the fact that we recognize the ultimate sacrifice that has been made by them, and they will continue to feel these repercussions for the remainder of their lives, because they have lost a parent. Snowball Express exists to honor and lift up these families with the hope that they experience healing and love through these activities. America is forever in their debt.”
To remember those fallen heroes, this “week of a lifetime” is designed to be fun-filled, action-packed and an exciting time for the families involved. Using a volunteer team, Snowball Express creates a series of events to connect the children and surviving spouses of the fallen with others going through the same experience. As one parent explained, “Not many kids in day-to-day life have lost a parent, either a mom or a dad, in the military service, so to meet others who have experienced this same crisis and to know you are not alone – well, it is amazing for my daughter and for me.”
Beginning with the families being greeted by staff members of the airport’s United States Organization (USO) and led to their Christmas-decorated departure terminal, children are given personalized gifts from Santa Clause and his helpers. They are then treated to a flight on American Airlines to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and welcomed to the city. American Airlines provides both airlift and “send-off” support, offering eight chartered flights arranged strategically to collect the largest number of attendees as close as possible to their hometowns. Additionally, one single hotel houses all the attendees in a single location, and numerous Dallas/Fort Worth corporations and commercial organizations support the activities. Celebrities and entertainers perform for the collective group, and they typically enjoy such activities as a trip to Six Flags, an outing to the Fort Worth Stockyards and many other fun events throughout the week. “Our mission is to give the kids a fun time, but also to allow them to connect with others. The children who attend the annual event hopefully walk away knowing they are not alone, and we honor the sacrifice that his or her parent made while serving our country,” continues Mr. Brewster.
For the second year in a row, Snowball Express attendees visited Strikz Entertainment in Frisco this past December. Experiencing the “Walk of Gratitude,” attendees were welcomed and cheered by dozens of members of the community, members of the City of Frisco Police and Fire Departments, high school cheerleaders and band members, as well as other local businesses and volunteers forming a line while waving American flags and using noisemakers to honor the families during the holiday season.
Once they arrived, attendees were able to choose from a variety of activities including bowling lanes, a huge arcade, a one-of-a-kind laser tag arena, billiard tables, as well as a bevy of food and drink, including pizza, salad and sodas. “We are honored to be a part of Snowball Express,” notes Neil Farren, the owner of Strikz Entertainment. “I am blessed in life, and having two nephews serving right now, I will do whatever I can to support our military families. We do a lot of parties all year long at Strikz, but this one is special and so enjoyable. Once they get here, everyone has free reign at the entertainment center, and I truly hope they have a great time. But, the gift is given to us by being able to do a small thing for these military families. This is just so easy to do for us.”
The impact of Snowball Express is hard to gauge for each family member, but often, children return year after year with their parent and reunite with friends they have made through the organization. One 8-year-old named “Johnny” experienced understandable regret and depression after his father was killed serving in Afghanistan. Johnny’s teacher took notice as he struggled, misbehaved and acted out at school, and repeatedly, the teacher contacted his mother to explain his latest mischievous act or disappointment. However, in January of the new year, Johnny’s mother received a different type of call from the school. As the teacher began the conversation, she said, “What have you done with Johnny?” His mother hesitated slightly and then responded, “What do you mean?” The teacher replied, “Your son is a completely changed boy. I do not know what happened over the last month, but he is not the same kid I had in my class last year. He listens, he obeys, and … he is happier.” What the teacher did not know was that Johnny had just returned from his Christmas break, where he had attended Snowball Express.
The organization always welcomes additional volunteers and donors to its cause. Whether it is volunteering with the kids, participating in the Walk of Gratitude each year, promoting the organization in the community or donating funds and resources (more than 96 percent of total contributions go directly to support its programs), Snowball Express appreciates every contribution. “We are so thankful today and every day for our military heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms,” says Mr. Brewster. “But, the kids are our true heroes for what they have endured. You cannot get around these kids and not be touched by them. It effects their lives forever. These kids have given that, and they are the truest heroes for us all.”